In the years since The Legend of Zelda’s 1986 release, director, producer, and co-designer Shigeru Miyamoto has described the game as an attempt to replicate what he felt during childhood explorations of the countryside outside of Kyoto, Japan, where he was raised. In making the first installment of what would go on to become one of Nintendo’s most beloved series, his foundational memories of inspecting foreboding caves or happening upon unexpected lakes provided a framework for what would become a global sensation.
Three decades later, when a team at Nintendo sought to rethink Zelda’s design ethos after years of working within an increasingly calcified format, its members returned to that first game and its sense of free-spirited exploration for inspiration. The result was 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, more than any series entry before it, imparted a feeling that players were wandering an expansive fantasy world as awe-inspiring and invigoratingly dangerous as the mental landscape of a great childhood adventure.
Breath of the Wild tweaked the past games’ more confined environments and gauntlet of clockwork puzzle levels—dubbed “dungeons” by players—by offering a sprawling landscape dotted with smaller, discrete challenges broken up by long periods spent simply figuring out how to climb mountains or descend into far-off valleys. It replaced an unlockable, regularly expanding player tool set with ad hoc weapon collecting and the scrappy use of environmental dangers to defeat enemies. In short, it rethought what Zelda could be by returning to the spirit of its debut, tossing aside decades of design staples in favor of a more fluid, improvisational style of play that emphasized a sense of adventure over all else.
The creation of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the follow-up to Breath of the Wild, must have presented a significant challenge, then. How does a studio make a direct sequel to a game whose success comes, in large part, from the novelty of exploring an uncharted world?
Tears of the Kingdom solves this problem in familiar video game fashion. It offers more. More ways to interact with the virtual setting’s flora and fauna; more areas to explore across, above, and below the vast Kingdom of Hyrule; more side quests to discover when riding or jogging into a settlement populated with talkative, needy characters.
Link, the series’ mute elfin hero, is quickly granted a new suite of powers in Kingdom’s opening hours. He is able to pick up and manipulate objects with motions of his hand like a benign Carrie White, gluing them together to form a seemingly limitless number of contraptions and vehicles. He can also rewind time to, say, ride a recently descended meteor back up into the sky or reverse the direction of giant industrial gears to help him navigate labyrinths and puzzle-box “shrines.” He can fuse weapons and items together to make more deadly, elementally infused swords and arrows, and zip upward through solid surfaces to emerge again from a liquidy otherworld high above his starting point.
All of this works well in allowing players to enact staggeringly wide-ranging and creative methods of problem solving. It also makes journeying across Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule feel less like embarking on an adventure than engaging in a process of continuously stumbling upon the huge number of pieces required to complete an enormous, multifaceted puzzle.
Where Breath of the Wild’s comparatively limited set of player interactions meant its world contained plenty of empty spaces—great opportunities to contemplate the movement of the breeze through tall grass while riding a horse from one town to another or empathetically shiver as Link scrambles up to the craggy peaks of a snow-capped mountain range—Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule is littered with the necessary components to facilitate its object-building powers. Link is constantly tripping over roadside stops containing planks of wood and iron wheels or happening upon broken river bridges or minecart tracks with half-constructed vehicles, sails, batteries, and blowing fans conveniently located nearby.
Whether up in the bracing winds of the rocky sky islands or down in the forests, deserts, and plains of the surface, the world is dotted with diversions. These often take the form of talkative locals with red exclamation marks signifying their status as side quest-givers or leafy spirits wiggling on their backs who need a hand traversing the land to rejoin their pals. Helping out one of these characters or just navigating from one part of the environment to another usually involves scanning Link’s surroundings for bits of useful scrap, building infrastructure or vehicles with it, and moving on to the next problem (which is usually not more than a short sprint from the one just solved).
This focus means that the game resembles a toybox more than its predecessor’s sandbox—a sprawling obstacle course rather than a lengthy wilderness hike. Tears of the Kingdom is a busier game, and one that often feels too utilitarian in its design to inspire the same sense of adventure as what came before.
The newly added “Depths” region—a massive subterranean landscape crawling with monsters and valuable resources—provide a partial antidote to this kind of artificiality. Shrouded in darkness, dripping with a physicalized evil goop called “gloom,” and hiding monsters within inky shadows, the Depths offer an imagination firing opportunity for freeform exploration. Once he’s paraglided into one of the chasms cracking apart Hyrule’s surface, Link must navigate the dark by tossing out glowing seeds as visibility-boosting bread crumbs, locate luminescent plants that mark his position on a map, and try not to stumble, night-blind, off the edges of cliff that descends into ever more abyssal caverns.
In WIRED’s interview with Tears of the Kingdom director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and producer Eiji Aonuma, Fujibayashi notes that the Depths are “really about driving [a] sense of adventure” by “making sure that we provide an area where players can get really into the spirit of adventuring and exploring.”
Held in contrast to the bulk of the game’s environments—its surface and sky—the Depths offer far more of that “sense of adventure” than can be found elsewhere in the game. Though sublime pockets of aimless wandering do pop up here and there, playing Tears of the Kingdom is a fundamentally different experience than what’s offered by Breath of the Wild. Despite similarities in aesthetic and plot—Link is still, after all these years, trying to rescue Princess Zelda and hanging out with an assortment of rock-monsters, fish-people, and bipedal birds along the way—the sequel is a departure in tone and activity that, ironically given its freedom of player expression, feels far more tightly directed than its predecessor. The fingerprints of its designers are evident in every carefully placed collection of building materials and the pull of new activities tucked into nearly every corner of the map.
It may not be as consistently surprising or feel as fresh as Breath of the Wild’s break away from decades of series formula, but Tears of the Kingdom is still an impressive refinement of what a Zelda game can be so many decades after its debut. As an approach to tackling a sequel’s typical need to give audiences a mixture of both expected familiarity and novel new additions to what came before, it’s a remarkably savvy creation.
If players long for the sustained quiet and lost-in-the-woods exploration that Breath of the Wild offered—and that series co-creator Miyamoto sought to bring to virtual life with the 1986 Legend of Zelda—they’d be better served looking elsewhere, though. The wilderness hike now has Lego blocks strewn across its paths and plenty of colorful signs marking each milestone along the way.